Kurtwood Smith Built Career on ‘Dead Poets’ and Big Moments

Kurtwood Smith (Frederick M. Brown/Getty)

One of the great things about Hollywood is that not everything that makes it to the big (or small) screen was originally meant to be there.

From “Taxi Driver” to “The Shining” to “Midnight Cowboy,” some of the best moments in cinematic history are made up on the spot – completely unscripted, improvised and unexpected.

In a recent interview with actor Kurtwood Smith, best known as the curmudgeonly Red Forman on “That ’70s Show,” the actor revealed one such moment in the Academy Award-winning action film “RoboCop.” In the scene, villain Clarence Boddicker (Smith) is apprehended by RoboCop after tossing him through a window. Boddicker is brought to the police station where he confronts an officer at the front desk and spits a bloody gob onto the cop’s paperwork, saying, “Just give me my ****ing phone call.”

“I’m proud of that [scene],” Smith told me. “My first shot in the movie was that moment and it cemented the relationship between [director] Paul Verhoeven and myself, because that wasn’t in the script.”

He continued, “Just before we shot, I had all this makeup on … so I just came up with this idea and I said, ‘What do you think if I spit blood on the desk?’ But we forgot to tell the actor that I was going to be talking to. So when I did it, he was not very happy. But it was an effective moment.”

It wouldn’t be the last time the 68-year-old actor would take part in moment that defined a classic film. In the 1989 drama “Dead Poets Society,” which was released for the first time on Blu-ray this week, Smith plays the stuffy Mr. Perry, father of a conflicted prep school student named Neil. As the film unfolds, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) and his classmates are rejuvenated by the school’s unorthodox new English professor John Keating (Robin Williams), who inspires the boy to explore acting, much to Mr. Perry’s dismay.

In one of “Poets” most dramatic scenes [spoiler alert], Mr. Perry discovers Neil’s body after the boy commits suicide, heartbroken over his father’s decision to send him to military school. But as Smith revealed to me, the scene was not in the original script.

“I remember sitting in the hotel … and I was sitting there and nobody said anything to me about it, it just slid under the door. They just slid this scene under the door,” Smith recalled. “And I picked it up and it said, ‘Mr. Perry find Neil’s body.’ That shocked me.”

Smith later confessed that the unexpected scene taught him to “not be afraid of big moments,” adding that he didn’t know how he was going to play the dramatic moment until the time came.

“I put myself in the point where that character is to begin with and then it was just a question of going for it,” he said.

His dramatic performance in “Dead Poets Society” showed Hollywood that Smith had range beyond the sadistic villain he ably portrayed in “RoboCop,” and the actor has often stated that the two films have helped extend his 32-year career. Smith has appeared in more than 100 television shows and movies, including “Star Trek IV,” “Rambo III” and “Under Siege 2.” As for his most unusual role …

“I was in a little cult movie called ‘Two Idiots in Hollywood,” he said, laughing. “I played a lawyer, but I know I wore a Mexican serape and I was supposed to be giving this guy strange advice. Fortunately, nobody ever saw that [movie], so it didn’t ruin my career.”


“Dead Poets Society” is now available on Blu-ray, featuring interviews with director Peter Weir, Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, as well as behind-the-scenes featurettes and audio commentary. The film is also available on XFINITY On Demand with an HBO subscription.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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